Online fury after cat is crushed at airport

Posted on: 12:17 pm, March 29, 2013, by

6-june-option-2[1]

By Naomi Canton, for CNN

(CNN) — Preeti Varma was inconsolable after seeing her pet cat crushed to death at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport as the creature was loaded onto a flight to Singapore.

“You see a crowd forming round her but she is given no medical aid and no one does anything,” Varma says of the March 23 incident.

Her grief soon turned to rage among tens of thousands of online pet lovers worldwide.

The day after Varma’s cat, James Dean, died, a friend published online an open letter to Jet Airways, the international airline that had been carrying the cat.

The letter demanded a full explanation and apology from the privately owned Indian airline and blasted its “insensitive” handling of the tragedy and pet travel procedures.

The blog post spread quickly across social media sites and within 24 hours had 20,000 hits from across the world.

Hundreds of furious animal lovers also unleashed Twitter fury at Jet Airways, forcing the airline to issue two public statements on Facebook.

Varma, 26, a brand strategist, paid Rs 4,500 (US$83) to fly her rescued Indian street cat called James Dean on her flight.

She got engaged last August and moved to Singapore six months ago to be with her fiancé but left her pet with friends in New Delhi while she sorted out the paperwork and quarantine.

After check-in, Varma was asked to remove James Dean from the cage so it could be X-rayed. The cat immediately escaped Varma’s grip and scuttled under the machine.

Half an hour later Varma got her cat back inside the IATA-approved cage. She added an extra wire on top, double checked it was locked and handed her to the staff.

But her biggest nightmare came while waiting at the gate to board her 8.55 a.m. flight. Jet Airways staff approached her and informed her: “The cage is empty. The cat is no more.”

Shocked, she broke down in tears and refused to board the flight demanding to see her one-year-old kitty.

After having her Duty Free bottle of gin confiscated, she was escorted back to check-in where she was handed her beloved cat’s corpse in its cage.

Jet Airways staff then tried to escort her out of the airport but she demanded to see the CCTV footage.

After waiting for two hours, she watched in horror as footage showed her cat jumping out of a luggage trolley onto the tarmac and being run over by a trolley coming in the opposite direction.

“She squirms a bit and then dies. Three airline staff stand around and they motion to a garbage man to pick her,” Varma says, speaking from Singapore. ” He picks her up with newspaper by the neck and drops her into the cage.”

More than 300 people have since signed a petition calling for better training of Jet Airways staff on handling pets and better infrastructure for pet travel.

A Jet Airways spokesperson tells CNN.com: “On close inspection of the container, it was observed that the wire mesh in the front of the container was bent outwards and pushed out of the main frame.

“It is inferred that the pet forced itself out of the container by pushing the wire mesh and thereby creating a gap for it to come free.”

Varma insists negligence by Jet Airways caused the death of her cat.

“I think either the cage was thrown so violently onto the trolley that it snapped open, or someone let her out. There is no way my cat could have pushed the cage open by herself,” she says.

Varma now wants Jet Airways to apologize not just for the incident but the “insensitive way” she claims she was treated, being left alone shaking and crying for hours.

She also wants the airline to tell her what steps they are taking to improve pet travel safety.

“I don’t want any compensation. They should make a donation to an animal organization,” she adds. “They should have a vet present at the airport and an animal handler to accompany the pet to the aircraft.”

The Jet Airways spokesperson says the airline has embarked on a global review of other airport and airline procedures.

The spokesperson said: “We sincerely regret the accidental demise of James Dean, pet cat of Ms. Preeti Varma. All our staff are fully conversant and trained in the process of handling household pets and necessary infrastructure is available at the airports to deal with such movements of pets.

“If the actions of any members of our team came across as insensitive we would like to assure that this was unintentional and to apologize to Ms. Varma.”

International Pet Travel Consultant Anupama Vinayak, who runs pet relocation service Furry Flyers in India, which flies 40-50 pets in and out of India each month, said she had never heard of an incident like this.

But she added: “Pet travel is still in a very nascent stage in India. Airlines are trying to put their best foot forward but there still is a lot of room for improvement because India itself is not a very pet-friendly country,” she said.